When Martin Luther King ended his famous speech on the national mall, he did not say, “Well, I see our time is up. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my dreams, and please let me know if you have any questions. If not, enjoy the rest of your time in Washington.”
His ending was far more memorable and inspiring that, of course, and we can take from him and other great historical speakers some lessons that will do the same for our speeches and presentations.
Although the two most memorable moments of any presentation are the opening and the close, most speakers pay far more attention to the opening and tend to neglect their ending. There’s a good reason to pay more attention to the opening, because first impressions can be very powerful. Yet there are also excellent reasons to be just as careful with the preparation and delivery of your close. The close is the last impression listeners have of you; do you want it to be weak? Do you want listeners to begin tuning out before the final words are out of your mouth?
What are the most common closing errors?
Slow fades. Songs on the radio fade in volume toward the end, but presentations should never end that way. Ending with “That’s about all I have to say on this, does anyone have any questions?”, is all too common. Your listeners can sense the fadeout and begin turning their thoughts to checking emails or thinking about something else.
Long summaries. Some people will argue with this. After all, the most venerable presentation structure is the three Ts, which ends with “tell them what you told them”. There are good reasons to end this way, because repetition is generally a good thing. The problem is that you have to also consider your audience’s reaction. An executive audience, whose members pride themselves on being quick studies, is going to feel patronized if you do this. They will also begin tuning you out when they know that the summary is coming. If you feel you must give some sort of summary, keep it brief.
Ambiguous or tentative call to action. “Thank you, and I hope I’ll have your support.” Give them a clear path to agree so that there is no question what you want from them.
Talking past the close. One of the most common mistakes in selling also applies to presenting. If you’ve clearly made your case and confidently asked for agreement, anything you say afterwards can only hurt. It will either show a lack of confidence or give your listeners reasons to change their minds.
Adding something new. Don’t bring out something new that you hadn’t already covered; it will confuse your audience and possibly negate everything that was said before.
Being surprised by your own ending. This is the opposite of talking past the close. Too many speakers ramble early and then freak out when they realize they’re running out of time. They speed up or leave out important material.
Some great endings:
History’s great speakers knew how to close with powerful and lasting impressions that were matched to the gravity of the occasion.
Winston Churchill closed one of his most famous speeches with a challenge to his listeners and a reminder of what they were made of:
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
Lincoln ended the Gettysburg Address by reminding his listeners what was at risk:
“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
What does this mean to you?
Chances are you won’t be called upon to deliver a speech with the gravity of the Gettysburg Address, so you will sound ridiculous if you try to match these levels of grandiloquence:
“and so my friends, it is our solemn duty to remember our obligation to future generations of shareholders by investing in these widgets…”
Yet your ending has to match the importance, quality and impact of your presentation, and you can achieve this by thinking about how you want your listeners to feel and what you want them to do as a result of your talk. Then, write an ending that evokes that feeling or calls for that action.
Every persuasive presentation answers two questions: What do you want me to do and why should I do it? Stress the answers to these questions in your close. Give a very brief recap or summation of their benefits or the risk of inaction, and then leave no doubt in their minds about what you want them to do. One way to reinforce the risk of inaction is to leave them with a question that drives home the risk.
How do you want them to feel?
Even a logical, ROI-based decision will might need some emotional impetus to drive real action. Do you want your audience to be inspired, confident or determined? End with an inspiring quote or a picture of a better future. Or do you want to scare them into acting? End with a clear warning or a challenging question.
What do you want them to do?
Leave no doubt about what you want them to do. If it’s agreement you want, ask for it. If you want action, make your call for it clear, decisive, and confident. You can even end with a challenge: “We’ve put this decision off long enough; this is our last chance; the time to act is now.”
Or, you can get the audience to close for you, by asking them a direct question that forces them to make their intentions clear: “What do we need to do to make this happen?”
In addition, here are two proven ways to add punch to your ending:
Give them a tagline or sound bite that sticks in their minds. (E.g. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”) Say what you will about Johnnie Cochran’s defense of OJ Simpson, his closing was effective and memorable. End with the headline you want the press to write about your presentation.
Wrap a bow around it. Tie back to your opening for a neat and memorable way to close the presentation. Here’s an example:
So, how did King close his great speech?
”Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
That was an ending!